By Filip Noubel

While the story of China in Africa dominates the news and the academic world, it has also succeeded in erasing what has become little known today: the fact that Taiwan was very active and present in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, and provided development aid and training to a number of African countries, including the western African state of Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso gained full independence from France in 1960 and at the time established diplomatic relations in 1961 with the Republic of China (ROC) , whose government had fled mainland China in 1949 to establish itself on the island of Taiwan. But following a 1966 military coup that brought Major General Sangoulé Lamizana to power in 1973, Burkina Faso established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after Beijing provided a significant aid of nearly USD 50 million that lasted through the 1980s.

Yet another military coup brought Blaise Compaoré to power in 1987, after which, in 1994, Burkina Faso announced it would re-establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan (or ROC). In 2008, both capitals, Taipei and Ouagadougou, were even made sister cities. Yet in 2018, after a period of 24 years, Ouagadougou decided it would switch to the PRC one more time, and currently, it maintains full diplomatic relations with Beijing only. 

To understand the complex relations linking Taiwan to Burkina Faso, Global Voices spoke over Zoom in French to Doctor and Professor  Dramane Germain Thiombiano, who teaches at Taiwan’s National Yunlin University of Science and Technology in the southwest of the island. There he focuses on political economy, international institutions, and negotiation strategies in his academic and teaching work. Thiombiano is originally from Burkina Faso, where he worked as a social educator before moving to Taiwan 12 years ago on a study grant and eventually stayed on to teach.

The interview has been edited for style and brevity.

Portrait of Dramane Germain Thiombiano. Photo used with permission

Filip Noubel (FN): The Republic of China (ROC, based in Taiwan) has played a role in providing development aid and training to Burkina Faso in the past. Is the memory of this cooperation still alive today in Burkina Faso?   

Dramane Germain Thiombiano (DGT): Burkina Faso’s relationship with Taiwan is truly tumultuous, following the recognition of Taipei in 1961 by Ouagadougou. At the time many African governments were anti-communist. After the recognition of the People’s Republic of China by Washington in 1971, many countries changed their policy, however Burkina Faso is one of the few African countries to have always supported Taiwan’s candidacy for the United Nations after this date.

In 1973 Burkina Faso recognized Beijing, which promised substantial aid in the construction and financing of major infrastructures. In 1994, Ouagadougou again recognized Taiwan because China showed little interest in Burkina Faso, although after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, Blaise Compaoré was the first African head of state to visit China in a climate of diplomatic boycott. Moreover, a 1994 visit by the Chinese foreign minister to Africa did not include Burkina Faso, and this was enough for Compaoré, as China clearly favored other countries such as Mali.

From 1994 to 2018 the relations between Taiwan and Burkina Faso were very warm, and brought a lot in terms of education, medical training, and the transfer of technological know-how thanks mainly to ICDF, the aid and cooperation office of Taiwan.

In the 1960s, Burkina Faso was a brand new country and Taiwan had sent its technicians to the Kou Valley in the southeast of the country to help with rice cultivation. I personally met a Taiwanese person, Mr. Li who worked on this project at the time, and was decorated in 2008 by President Blaise Compaoré. Taiwan maintains an association of technicians who have worked in Burkina Faso and meet regularly to discuss Upper Volta because that was the name of the country at the time. Most of them are between 70 and 80 years old today and have very good memories.

In Burkina-Faso, it is more difficult to keep this memory because people simply say ‘Chinese.’ Only people who have been in direct contact with the Taiwanese speak of Taiwan, the others do not differentiate between the Chinese from China. Moreover, in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan only used the name of Republic of China, which adds to the confusion of the younger generations who did not know this era.

Then the cooperation from China that followed often followed in the footsteps of Taiwanese projects, sometimes in the same places, so most Burkinabè do not make the distinction. On the other hand, those who have studied in Taiwan — among them there are many doctors — know very well what the Taiwanese have achieved for our country. People also know that Taiwan helped with the Bagré dam in the northeast of the country, and often refer to the island as ‘Little China’ to differentiate it from Beijing, which they call the ‘Big China.’

Here is a video showing the Kou Valley rice fields from RTB — Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina:

FN: How do you assess the current relations between Taiwan and the African continent?

DGT: In Nigeria, China is putting a spoke in the wheels of Taiwan, because in 2017 it obtained the relocation of the Taipei Representative Office outside the capital Abuja, following substantial aid from Beijing. On the other hand, Côte d’Ivoire has just authorized Taiwan to reopen a representative office in November 2022, following its closure in 2017, and I think that Abidjan wants to demonstrate its independence from China by making this gesture, especially that there are conflicts between Ivorians and Chinese in certain major projects in Côte d’Ivoire. There is also a small Ivorian community in Taiwan that is advocating for deeper relations with the island.

FN: How about the African presence in Taiwan? 

DGT: The situation at the university level is quite deplorable. To date, there is no such center for African studies to my knowledge. I myself tried to create a center, but failed. In China there are study centers everywhere and people are learning African languages like Swahili. On the other hand in Taiwan, even at the time of diplomatic relations with Burkina Faso, people here knew nothing about our country. Africa is not at the center of Taiwanese interests, and remains a ‘dark continent’ unfortunately, while Africa can be an asset for Taiwan. Similarly, Taiwan’s democratic assets could be better used in Africa to promote the country.


I am now trying to promote Burkinabè culture in Taiwan. I often speak in primary schools where I talk about Africa and the education system in Africa and my students who are around 12 years old are very moved when they see the difference between the education systems. and they want to know more about Burkina Faso and Africa in general.

Eswatini has an embassy, South Africa has a Representative Office here which is very active in university exchanges, as does Nigeria. I also met Nigerian businessmen and women and Burkinabè students who, after the severance of diplomatic relations, did not want to go to China and stayed in Taiwan. Some work as researchers, teachers, are married to Taiwanese. There are several groups on WhatsApp where Africans living in Taiwan communicate.


The News Lens has been authorized to publish this article from Global Voices, a border-less, largely volunteer community of more than 1400 writers, analysts, online media experts, and translators.

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TNL Editor: TJ Ting (@thenewslensintl)

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